20.9.20

TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN² - Cat Stevens/Yusuf

The intriguing saga of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has taken another twist with the release of this impeccable re-recording of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ breakthrough album, long considered his peak achievement and a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. Though only marginally superior to Mona Bone Jakon, which preceded it, and Teaser & The Firecat, which followed, Tillerman includes such memorable titles as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, more relevant than ever in the light of Extinction Rebellion; ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the first hint of Stevens’ discomfort with his calling; ‘Wild World’, which alerts the unwary to unseen perils; ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the first in a series of introspective songs that communicated Stevens’ endless search for something deeper in his life; and the peerless ‘Father And Son’, among the greatest musical reflections on the familial generation gap, and his most enduring song. 
So what’s different? Well, he’s found his hard headed woman and Mary’s dalliance with the parson is no longer a topic for discussion but these are minor modifications in the reimagined, 50th Anniversary edition of Tillerman, released last week and now credited on its spine jointly to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Of far greater import is the improved 21st Century production, the deeper timbre of Stevens’ voice and some nifty rearrangements of its 11 songs, some more radical than others. 
The songs are sequenced in the same order as before and were re-recorded earlier this year at a studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Paul Samwell-Smith reprised his production duties and it is pleasing to note that Yusuf was joined by acoustic guitarist Alun Davies, his long serving accompanist and musical partner. Alun’s friend Jim Cregan was brought in to add some electric guitar, various other musicians beef up the instrumentals to levels unheard on the original recording and many of those present add their voices to a choral landscape that occasionally reinforces the delicate ambience of songs hitherto sung by Stevens alone. 
Much of the charm of the original Tillerman – and Stevens’ albums from this period of his career generally – was Samwell Smith’s light touch, but to a certain extent this has been set aside in favour of a fuller production, which is no bad thing in the light of Stevens’ age – he turned 72 in July – and its natural impact on his vocal cords. That said, the enhancements come intermittently, as if those involved decided, perhaps wisely, not to overdo the innovation for fear of alienating traditionalists. Happily, the compromise at which they arrived meets all expectations. 
Above all, though, the album retains its sadness. No matter how briskly Stevens and Davies strummed their guitars, nothing could mask the melancholy in Stevens’ voice nor the despondency in lyrics that laid bare a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. This would not be resolved until Stevens, once Steven Demetri Georgiou now simply Yusuf, discovered the Islamic faith in late 1977. Thereafter he connected only intermittently with the secular world, though in recent years he seems to have mellowed in this regard, finding a middle ground amidst the demands of his religion and the material world in which the commercial music industry subsists. 
Back in the present, on the new version of Tillerman the lengthy intro to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the opening song, is retained, updated with an attractive, breathy electronic boost to the backing vocal, and Yusuf’s richer voice adds gravity to a song that was prescient 50 years ago. (Who was to know that this re-recording of Stevens’ lament for the natural world would be released a few days after Sir David Attenborough’s most recent televised wildlife documentary Extinction: The Facts, a chilling reminder of how certain species and, indeed, our very planet are threatened by overdevelopment?) At the 2.50 mark – ‘You’ve cracked the sky’ – the song breaks out from its familiar mellow setting and Yusuf’s anger resonates above drums that pound, at least by his standards, and a choral backdrop that adds dramatic counterpoint before the arrangement slips back into the same gentle fade from which it began. 
Aside from the subtle change in the lyric, ‘Hard Headed Woman’ lacks the edgy abruptness of the original and the orchestral interlude is replaced by a smoother texture and a soft electric guitar, but the modification here pales into insignificance compared to ‘Wild World’ which follows. Once a slightly reggae-tuned hit for Jimmy Cliff, ‘Wild World’ is given a Latin American makeover with a Gallic touch, an accordion deep in the mix. A lovely clarinet solo rides above the swing tempo, taking the song home in a lengthy, dreamy closing outro.
Lisa is still as sad as ever, and even a Spanish guitar, beautifully played by Eric Appapoulay, cannot ease her misery. As in the original, the song’s foundation is the tinkly piano figure, and although plucked nylon strings dominate a solo hitherto reliant on bowed strings, the arrangement is not that much different from the 1970 ‘Sad Lisa’. Even more so than ‘Wild World’, ‘Miles From Nowhere’ explodes after its quiet start, rocking out with electric guitars leading the charge as Yusuf celebrates his freedom, thereafter undulating between merriment and reflection. 
Aside from an orchestral opening reminiscent of the Beatles Mystery Tour period, ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ is not that far removed from the original recording, but ‘Longer Boats’ is more full-throated, the second verse – ‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’ – replaced with lines about asteroid dwellers looking down on us, while the contentious verse about Mary and the parson is traded for a prayer for unity and peace delivered by a rapper identified in the accompanying booklet as Brother Eli. 
‘Into White’ always sounded to me like something Edward Lear might have written to entertain children. Its gentility is retained in the least transformed song on the album. In another sharp contrast, however, ‘On The Road To Find Out’ has morphed into a dirty blues, not something I ever imagined writing in relation to Yusuf. Blue notes, courtesy of Appapoulay on electric guitar, abound in Stevens’ most overt quest song, the plodding beat and insistent riff hinting at the sub-Sahara and nothing like the original.
Which brings us to ‘Father And Son’ in which Yusuf duets with himself, by which I mean that while the voice of the father is newly recorded, the voice of the son is taken from a historical live recording at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, thus neatly realising the song’s original script. Based around the familiar theme of leaving home to discover life for oneself; sympathy balancing equally between parental caution and youthful impatience. Thankfully, the arrangement is unchanged, the instrumental interlude serene though towards the end the old and young voices no longer blend into lyrical counterpoint. Nevertheless, the son’s lines retain the desperate frustration of the original, a song of unusual passion and originality. 
Finally, the slight hesitancy evident in ‘Tea For Tillerman’ itself, the minute-long coda, has vanished in favour of a more confident piano part, played and sung by Yusuf in his more sonorous intonation. 
In closing I should mention that charming stop-frame animated videos have been produced to illustrate ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father And Son’, and a third film accompanies the bluesy ‘On The Road To Find Out’. All can be found on catstevens.com.



17.9.20

KNOCK ON WOOD WITH THE BLACK SHEEP

 

I have just started to read Knock On Wood, Eddie Floyd’s autobiography which is co-authored by my friend Tony Fletcher. I’ll probably review it properly here next week but its title brings back a memory I feel like sharing. 
It is August of 1968 and I am living at home in Skipton in Yorkshire. Because their bass player is indisposed I have been asked to take his place in The Black Sheep, thus fulfilling a private ambition of some significance to me. By common consent The Black Sheep are Skipton’s best band, a six-piece that specialises in soul and R&B with a few Stones songs like ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ thrown in for good measure. Their speciality is a note-for-note reproduction of Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band’s Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt Live! LP, Piccadilly NPL 38026, a record I still own, and a slew of Stax and Atlantic hits like ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘In The Midnight Hour’. 


The occasion makes it all the more momentous. The gig is the joint 21st birthday party of two acquaintances of mine, John Spencer, who became a noted rugby union player, and John Mewies, who, like his father before him, has been our family solicitor for as long as I can remember. A marquee has been hired which sits in the garden of the Mewies home in the lane opposite the pitches of Upper Wharfedale RUFC on the outskirts of Grassington, just up the road from Skipton. Furthermore, many of my friends will be there, among them several girls I would like to impress.
First of all, though, I need to learn The Black Sheep’s repertoire and to this end I spend the afternoon of the gig in the company of Richard Preston, esteemed not only as the best guitarist in Skipton but the owner of the best guitar in town, an orange Gretsch Tennessean, which he brings over to our house on the afternoon of the gig. 
Perhaps I should point out at this stage that none of this would have come about had I not recently been ousted from Sandra & The Montanas from Cross Hills, a five piece including our girl singer whose leanings are more on the pop side. My role as second guitarist is deemed redundant after they engage a bloke who owns not just an electric keyboard but a Vox PA system, with two impressively tall speaker columns. Far be it for me to suggest that he is hired on the strength of his gear but in a fit of indignation I exchange my red Futurama III guitar (and Watkins Copicat echo box – a bad mistake) for a Hofner Violin bass as played by Paul McCartney, albeit right-handed. I simply fancy a bass for a change and it only costs £35. The news that I now own this bass communicates itself to the members of The Black Sheep, all of whom I know anyway because they drink in the same Skipton pub as me, The New Ship, below. 


For two hours Richard and I make our way through The Black Sheep’s set list, me trying to pick up simple bass parts from him, he suggesting lines and telling me which key to play them in. I make a few notes on a bit of paper I’ll stick to the edge of the bass, just like Paul used to do. When we get to ‘Knock On Wood’ I love that ascending intro and the bass line that reaches up an octave, a bit like a slowed down version of the riff from Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’ which The Beatles nicked for ‘I Feel Fine’. The bass line to ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ is a bit like the first bit of the riff to ‘Twist And Shout’, which they also play (in C) and a few others we try out aren’t too difficult to pick up. The key thing, Richard tells me, is to keep the tempo. Watch the drummer, he says. Watch what chord I’m playing. If you’ve forgotten the riff, just play a note that corresponds with my chord in time to the bass drum. 
The Black Sheep is a six-piece but I can’t remember all their names. John Willie, whose dad was a haulier, is the singer; Kevin is on trumpet, Richard on guitar, me on bass (that night), with a keyboard player and drummer whose names escape me. They are massively popular in the Dales and travel around in an old hearse. It is an honour to be asked to play with them. 

(CC, left, with my violin bass, albeit not with the Black Sheep)

Well, I don’t disgrace myself. The Black Sheep’s old bass player has left behind his 50 watt Selmer bass amp and separate speaker which is not much smaller than a coffin, and when I plug in my Macca bass and tune up it sounds fine. Most of the partygoers already know The Black Sheep as they play regularly at the rugby club opposite tonight’s gig, and everyone is in the mood for a good time and unlikely to notice if their bass player drops the odd note. Then again, they might be surprised to see it is me toting that violin bass in the first place. Many of them know me and if they don’t know I can play guitar they do now. 
The Black Sheep have recently added ‘Baby Come Back’ to their list and the riff to that is dead easy – only three notes – as is another favourite, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ which goes on for ages with me thumping on the three notes across the fifth fret, so easy I manage to look up at the dancers, move around a bit and look like I’ve been playing bass for years. ‘Knock On Wood’ is slightly harder but when I get into the groove, leaping up to that octave and edging down again repeatedly, my eyes on the drummer, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
We do two sets, closing the second on an encore of ‘Twist And Shout’ which I can play with one arm behind my back. Afterwards, drinking a beer and basking in the glow of my achievement – I’ve played in the bloody Black Sheep – my satisfaction is as if I’d snogged the prettiest girl at the party. I did, too, but not that night.  
And now I’ll get back to reading Eddie Floyd’s book. 


10.9.20

READY STEADY GO! – THE WEEKEND STARTS HERE by Andy Neill




In March I previewed my friend Andy Neill’s upcoming book about Ready Steady Go!, the UK TV show broadcast between August 1963 and December 1966, that remains the benchmark by which TV rock and pop is judged. This was based on the manuscript, which Andy had asked me to read, but it no way prepared me for the real thing, the actual book, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

         Well, it’s “smashing” as Cathy McGowan would have told Mick or Brian as the Stones geared up to play their latest single on the RSG! set, or John and Paul as they larked around and made funny faces to camera, or Pete and Keith as she admired their mod gear. Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here – The Definitive Story Of the Show That Changed Pop TV – to give it its full title – belongs in that category of Rolls Royce rock books reserved for those Mark Lewisohn writes about The Beatles or other labours of love by music writers who’ve spent years on a project, in Andy’s case a mere 17, on and off.

         Which is to say that it’s big (about 12.5 inches square) and weighty (6 lbs), with about 70,000 words and hundreds of pictures spread over 268 high-end art paper pages. There are forewords by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Vicki Wickham, the production pair who more than anyone else brought RSG! to your screens, and contributions from Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and many more. (The only notable absentee among those newly interviewed is McGowan herself, now a grandmother, who “resolutely refuses any attempt to drag her back into her past”.) The price on the cover is £39.99 but Amazon charge £28.67.

         Although it’s a chronological account, beginning in pre-RSG! days and closing with a review of what happened next to its staff and presenters, the chapters are cunningly arranged backwards – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and included within them are spreads dealing with appearances by RSG!’s most favoured acts and other aspects of the show like Mod fashion, art and excursions onto the Continent. At the back you’ll find an episode guide with details of who appeared on all 178 programmes, the RSG! spin-off Ready Steady Win and even audience ratings. The text lovingly chronicles its tentative beginnings, its seat-of-the-pants production style, its impeccable musical values and, most of all, its absolute refusal ever to abide by the traditional rules of shows televised before live audiences.

         The production style is best summed up by Jagger. “RSG! wasn’t safe,” he says. “It took risks, and waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times.” Watching it, you often got the feeling the producers were cramming as much as they could into their miserly half hour slot, and that’s the same feeling I get from the book. Andy Neill and his designer Phil Smee have crammed as much as they can into it, from the RSG! memorabilia on the front and back end papers to a wealth of previously unseen (or seldom seen) shots from the set inside, Beatles and Stones galore, Dusty waiting for her cue and Cathy interviewing the stars in her customarily effusive style. 

         It’s in the detail where much of the magic lies. To cite just two examples, in the Episode Guide for show number 122 we are informed that Keith Moon was banned from compering RSG! because of something he ‘unintentionally’ said to Cathy  oh my! – while in the guide to show 89, which featured amongst others The Everly Brothers, we learn from Manfred Mann’s Tom McGuinness that Don and Phil stayed behind after rehearsals, playing their acoustic guitars to no one in particular. “They started singing old country and folk songs, staring into each other’s faces to get those harmonies spot on. They seemed unaware that the studio was slowly filling up with the other artists, cameramen and technicians. When the song ended there was silence from the growing crowd. Eventually, when it was evident they had finished, the place erupted with cheering. Don and Phil looked around as if they’d only just noticed us, and smiled. It was spine tingling to hear them singing just for themselves.”

         That’s just two tiny, almost microscopic details in this spectacular book about the show with the unforgettable catchphrase ‘The Weekend Starts Here’. That was the cue for every pop fan in the land to switch on the family TV early Friday evening and shoo their mums and dads out of the room for half an hour while this most exciting and trend-setting of pop shows was broadcast. This book does it justice in spades.

         Finally, nice but not quite as impressive, there’s a limited edition box set of 10 7” singles released as a companion to the book, featuring songs by Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, The Walker Brothers, The Supremes, Donovan, Cilla Black and The Searchers. Naturally it kicks off with the Manfred’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and the set include a 24-page booklet written by Andy.


The RSG! Singles Box


31.8.20

SYLVIE SIMMONS – Blue On Blue


Fifty years ago this past weekend on the Isle of Wight a crowd variously estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 were entertained by a 38-year-old ukulele player from New York called Herbert Khaury. A tall man with long straggly hair and a penchant for loud jackets and kipper ties, his professional name was Tiny Tim and his repertoire consisted largely of show tunes from the early 20th Century, most especially ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’, his only hit, which he sang in a piercing falsetto voice.
         Preceded on stage by Joni Mitchell and followed by Miles Davis, Tiny Tim’s fleeting popularity is one of those inexplicable phenomena that erupts every so often in the world of music, but I‘ll wager next month’s milk bill that his appearance at the 1970 IOW Festival did little for the sale of ukuleles, those four-stringed mini guitars beloved of Elvis in Blue Hawaii and the Georges Formby and Harrison. I own one myself and taught myself to play a few chords on it, then promptly forgot them.
         I now know that I was wrong to consign my ukulele to the wilderness beneath the bed. In the right hands it is a soft and seductive instrument, capable of expressing a wealth of tender emotions in a light, airy manner, easily a match for nylon-stringed acoustic guitars. The right hands that concern me today belong to Sylvie Simmons, perhaps best known as an accomplished music writer, a regular contributor to Mojo magazine and Leonard Cohen’s finest biographer. Gradually, however, Sylvie is becoming as well known for her music and ukulele playing, for her second album – a follow up to her 2014 début Sylvie – is garnering rave reviews everywhere I look.
         Blue On Blue, much delayed following an accident left Sylvie temporarily without the use of her left hand, is a quiet, reflective work, its songs slightly mannered in a way that suggests she’s taken a dash of Cohen’s velvety poetic traits and blended them with her own take on the mysteries of soured love, all stirred into a wafting wash of melancholia that drifts lightly from track to track and gives the record a pleasing consistency. Top flight production, by Howe Gelb, with whom Sylvie duets on one song, guarantees absolute clarity, enhanced by an absence of drums, minimal bass and prudent restraint.
         Like her softly strummed uke, Sylvie’s voice is a gentle instrument, her slight huskiness adding depth to the 11 songs. The first single, ‘Sweet California’, is a homage to her adopted home delivered with a touch of homesickness – Sylvie is British transported to the Bay Area – which prompted her to tell an interviewer: “There’s this thing about coming home to California, realising, ‘Yeah, it’s home.’ In a way, I was coming home from the accident.” Another song chosen for a single, ‘The Things They Don’t Tell You About Girls’, is a wry observation on female loquaciousness that suggests inflexibility is more a male than female trait, for which Sylvie has commissioned an amusingly retro video that can be found on YouTube.

(A portrait of the artist, by her friend Andy Lesco)
         
For the most part, though, Sylvie chronicles affairs of the heart that left her, if not bereft, then at least hoping for something better over the next horizon. In ‘Not In Love’ she’s left with her romantic dreams; in ‘Carey’s Song’ – on which Gelb plays a delicate, tinkling piano – she is fearlessly striking out on her own; and in ‘Creation Day’, on which I detected a hint of Gillian Welch at her most serene, she still wants him whose photograph she keeps. ‘Waiting For The Shadows To Fall’, another tearjerker, is effortlessly lovely, taken at a stately pace, gentler than anything else here, but there’s a sense of hope amidst the wreckage of her abandoned relationship. “On the broken pieces of my heart… try to make a new start,” she sings, a shade optimistically perhaps. By the time we reach ‘Stay Awhile’, an undisguised plea, I wanted to give her a great big hug.
         The closing song, ‘1,000 Years Before I Met You’, the duet with Gelb, shifts the tempo – if not the sentiments – towards country and western in a song quite unlike anything else on Blue On Blue. “Help me say goodbye to these blues,” sings Sylvie in the manner of those C&W ladies who believed that the higher their backcombed hair, the closer they were to God. Such is the Nashville mood, I was reminded of Merle HaggardTonight The Bottle Let Me Down’. 
         The journey from music writer to musician is littered with the kind of broken dreams that Sylvie Simmons sings about but in Blue On Blue she has produced a gem of a record, a tribute to the ukulele’s potential that Tiny Tim could never have imagined.

25.8.20

ROD & RON: Never A Dull Moment

(Picture by Barrie Wentzell)

It would have been 46 years ago this week when I last had meaningful conversations with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Both were in New York together but separately, Rod touting his forthcoming LP Smiler and Ron his first solo outing I’ve Got My Own Album To Do.
         In a seemingly pointless spirit of competition, both record companies – Mercury for Rod and Warners for Ron – hosted ‘invitation only’ lunches in posh restaurants for their artists on the same day, thus creating a dilemma for me. Lunch with Rod or lunch with Ron? I opted for Ron, solely because I had an interview scheduled with Rod the next day and needed to write something about Ron too.
         Honest Ron was a great luncheon companion, hilariously indiscreet about the rivalry between him and his Faces pal with a similar haircut. There weren’t many of us around the table and he kept us all entertained with his banter, a bit of cheek, a bit risqué, a bit cor-blimey guv. The idea was that he was promoting his solo LP but I don't recall him saying much about it.


         Mick Taylor had yet to leave the Stones so the issue of his replacement wasn’t on the table, but like pretty much everyone else observing the trajectory of the Faces I wasn’t surprised by the vagueness with which he spoke around the subject of their future. “Don’t ask me?” he said. Which rather begged the question, well who do I ask? Rod didn’t seem to know either.
         Ron was more affable, a good deal friendlier than Rod, and I turned what he had to say into a few paragraphs in my weekly New York news column. Rod, on the other hand, required something more substantial.
         When I arrived in his expansive hotel room – The President’s Suite no less – the following day it seemed to me as if he was on the defensive. “What do you wanna know?” he demanded when I settled down and switched on my cassette recorder. I think he sensed that the tide was turning against him, that the unanimous acclaim he’d enjoyed during that glorious run of solo LPs, beginning in 1969 with An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down up to 1972’s Never A Dull Moment, might be drawing to a close. Perhaps in his heart of hearts he knew that Smiler wasn’t in the same league.  
         Rod’s attitude towards the press had changed. In the past he’d been chatty, outgoing, but now he was behaving as if he expected the interview to turn into an argument. Maybe he didn’t trust us writers any longer. Still, I managed to scratch together a 1,500 word piece for the following week’s Melody Maker, dated August 31. It was headlined ‘I Dream Of A Solo Concert’, a dream that would become reality before long. Here it is:

“ANYTHING I say is not meant to be a blot on anyone’s character... or trousers.”
         Rod Stewart, Old Spikey himself, settled into position on the double bed in the St Regis Hotel President’s Suite, running his thin fingers through his hair and occasionally admiring his Spanish tan in one of the two mirrors that the hotel provides for Presidents and others whose bank balance enables them to afford such luxury.
         Rod, whose reputation for being a trifle outspoken is widely known, prefaced this interview with the above remark. He’s got into bother before through opening up a little too loosely on subjects he feels strongly about. A rebel who can’t be gagged, but who often regrets what he’s said earlier.
         The real reason for Rod’s decision to speak out again is the release of his fifth solo album (or sixth if you count Sing It Again). It’ll be out next month, probably September 20, and the title is Smiler.
         The lengthy delays that have preceded its release are due mainly to litigation regarding his contract with Mercury Records, a subject which he’s loth to discuss at present.
         Either way, the delays have rattled him considerably.
As usual it’s an album of Rod’s own compositions with Ronnie Wood, personal favourites from days gone by and a few contributions from friends. This time around, the friends include Elton John and Paul McCartney.
         Rod is in America is complete the mastering of the record, and here’s a rundown on the, as yet unheard, tracks.
         Side one opens with ‘Sweet Little Rock And Roller’, the Chuck Berry song, followed by ‘Lochinvar’, a short linker, ‘Farewell’, a Stewart/Quittenton song, ‘Sailor’, a Stewart/ Wood song, ‘Bring It On Home’, the old Sam Cooke tune and ‘Let Me Be Your Car’, written for Rod by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. This song was to have been on Elton’s  Yellow Brick Road.
         Side too opens with the Goffin/King song ‘Natural Man’, followed by ‘Dixie Toot’, a Stewart/Wood tune, ‘Hard Road’, an instrumental by Quittenton of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face’ from My Fair Lady, ‘Girl From The North Country’, the Dylan song, and closes with ‘Mine For Me’, written for Rod by Paul McCartney.
         The sleeve is a red tartan pattern and the inside depicts all those involved in the production – about 50 people. There’s a key to say who they all are.


         “It’s been finished for five months,” growled Rod, rolling over on the enormous bed and ordering tea with sugar. “Plus the fact that I’m a little bit slow. The album didn’t take all that long to record, it was just the time taken in getting everyone together.
         “For six months there’s been a problem with the record companies about who was releasing it, but it’s all been sorted out now. It comes out in England on September 20, thank goodness.
         “Yeah, I’m happy with it. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, It’d have been scrapped by now. Made it all outside the country for a change... Frankfurt, Brussels, everywhere. It seems donkey’s years ago since I started, but it must have been just before last Christmas. I made 17 tracks altogether and picked out the best ones.
         “There’s a couple of numbers that I’ve done that I’ve always wanted to sing. ‘Natural Man’ is one and ‘Bring It On Home’ is another. Paul McCartney came along to sing his number with me – not a bad singer either, that Paul.
         “He says he wrote it specially for me but I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like a cast-off. He mentioned something about it being for Red Rose Speedway, but I don’t care. It’s a fucking good track either way. Elton’s done one for me too. Bernie said it was for me ‘cos it was a good rock‘n’roll number and the only person who could sing it properly was me.
         “I know for a fact that Elton wanted to record that one himself ‘cos he kept saying if I didn’t want to do it, he’d do it himself. He plays the Joanna and sings it with me.”
         Rod walked towards the window and gazed over Central Park. “Nice ‘ere in New York innit,” he said. “I’m ‘ere until Friday. It’s a sort of promotional visit, ‘cos I ain’t done any press for ages. When I’m touring I like to look after my voice and talk as little as possible. Then I’m off to LA to finish mastering the album and I’m making a little documentary film there with Russell Harty.”
         Time, I thought, to dig a little deeper. Is work progressing on another Faces album?
         “No, no way. I don’t know whether we’re gonna do another Faces album or not. I don’t know what the position is there. We haven’t talked about it at all.
         “Kenney Jones has gone off and made a single of his own. He’s a good little singer, y’know, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Faces recordings. I know we’re staying together as a band and that’s all that counts as far as I am concerned.
         “Ronnie’s got his own solo album and it wouldn’t be any big hardship if we just got together to play each other’s stuff. As long as we stay together as a band, we’re OK. There’s no backbiting going on. We still get along with each other very well.
         “I’d say I put more work into the Faces’ albums than I do with my own. They’ve always been a bigger headache. Putting this latest album together was a piece of cake compared to a Faces’ album. It’s the first time I’ve ever recorded more tracks than I wanted.
         “Actually it’s more of a singing album than anything else. I felt it was about time I called the tune and sang what I wanted to sing, even though maybe some people might not like them as much.”
         There are no immediate plans for the Faces to tour America, even though they’ll be appearing in Europe soon. Rod likes playing England better than anywhere else, but right now he’s uncertain about the Faces’ popularity in America.
         “Two years ago we were Jack the Lads over here, but I don’t know how strong we are now. We’ll have to see how my album and Woody’s album do first. Everybody tells me fans are fickle, but I don’t think so – not for the brand of music we make anyway. We start a British tour on November 5, and that I really am looking forward to.”
         Was there any chance of Rod following in the footsteps of other rock stars and leaving Britain because of the tax situation?
         “Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s actually doing it yet,” he said. “I think they ought to, though. The Government thinks they’ll tax us bastards right up to the hilt because we won’t leave, but that’s wrong because I will if I want to. It’s so bloody unfair.
         “They’re thinking of a wealth tax now and that’s bloody criminal. That’s like, for a young man, paying your death duties before you die. What with a 90 per cent tax ceiling, it’s just not worth living in England any more.
         “I’m all for paying taxes. There’s nothing wrong in that. I’ll pay my dues, but I’ve got one shot at the big ball for all my life. I can’t do anything else but sing and maybe play a bit of football.”
         Conversation switched to the current huge package tours that have been travelling around America recently, the come-back of Dylan, CSN&Y and Clapton.
         “I’ve never thought of Dylan making a comeback. I think it’s detrimental to say they’re making a comeback. Out of the three I would say Clapton was the only one making a real comeback ‘cos he did have a lay off and wasn’t very well for a few years.
         “Dylan’s music has matured and people have matured with him. He hasn’t dropped out anywhere along the line and you can’t expect the guy to be writing songs now like he was when he was in Greenwich Village, can you? I always think comebacks are for really old geezers.”
         Did Rod miss Ronnie Lane’s presence in the Faces?
         “I really missed him at the outset but I don’t any more. He’s found what he wanted and that’s peace of mind and not going through the same old routine.
         “I don’t think it is a routine, though. I enjoy it, coming here and travelling there but Ronnie got fed up with it. It changed his lifestyle so he decided he wanted to change his band.”
         Which promoted me to ask about a change for Rod. “I dream about a solo concert of my own someday. There’s gotta be a chance of it happening with all the people that appear on my albums. I’ve asked them and they all say I ought to do it someday. Mmmmm, lovely acoustic guitars behind me.”
         Rod’s eyes glistened at the thought. “I’ll get round to it. It’s just a question of time. The longer I wait the better it’s going to be when I do it anyway.”

21.8.20

SMALL HOURS: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson


Like free jazz, heavy metal and rap, the music of John Martyn is an acquired taste I somehow never acquired. He wasn’t within my orbit during the period I worked for Melody Maker, and thereafter all I learned was that he was a great and very original songwriter, singer and – especially – guitarist, and an unpleasant man who was prone to violence, especially when drunk, which was often.
         I also knew that at one time he was close to Nick Drake, whose music I love, and this may have influenced me to buy Solid Air, a 10-track best of album somewhere along the way. I’d read that the song ‘Solid Air’ was about Drake and I was curious. The CD confirmed this and demonstrated to me that U2’s The Edge had learned a trick or two from Martyn’s echo-drenched playing style, that double or triple tracking delay he set up while he played on stage so that it appeared as if several guitarists were playing when, in fact, he was accompanying himself. It was indeed very clever, mesmerising even. 
         Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, Graeme Thomson’s fine biography, just published, confirms all of the above. I edited Thomson’s biographies of Kate Bush and George Harrison while at Omnibus Press and know how accomplished a biographer he is, and this latest book merely confirms his status in this regard. He analyses Martyn’s music wonderfully, follows his life and career in forensic detail and verifies my relief at never having come across Martyn in the flesh. He was no stranger to the bar room fights that feature in the lyrics of ‘May You Never’, his best known song, and it is this aspect of his personality that dragged him down, ruining his looks, his health and his relationships with many whose lives became intertwined with his.  
         What we learn from Small Hours is that Martyn, whose real name was Iain McGeachy, was one of those characters who goes charging through life without much care for the mess he leaves behind, and never cleans it up afterwards. A serial womaniser, he treated his wives and partners appallingly, leaving Beverley Kutner, his first, with black eyes, neglecting their children and leaving her penniless when he walked out. He did pretty much the same with just about all his women whether or not he married them. Like a few others drawn to the rock trade, he was a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde character, kind and loving one moment and insufferably nasty the next. Drink initiated his obnoxiousness and the longer he lived the worse it became, and it didn’t help that he surrounded himself with petty criminals.
         It would wrong to assume, however, that Small Hours is simply a litany of bad behaviour. Thomson is an adept critic, praising Martyn’s acclaimed output, especially Solid Air and Inside Out, the early Seventies albums on which his reputation rests. Take this description of ‘Fine Lines’, a track from the latter: “‘Fine Lines’ cuts deeper than the drunken arm slung around the shoulder, travelling through skin and bone to the soul, via the deeply felt connections forged in smoke-filled rooms and over smeared glasses, in the warm communion of bodies slumped platonically on sofas. Loneliness is there, too, whispering at the window, the exquisite sadness that comes from knowing that good times are ending even as they are happening. The fragility is so profound one can hear the air shake around the strings, feel the cadence of all those empty spaces.”
         Thompson is less enthusiastic about Martyn’s later output but he finds some good things to say about many of the songs recorded during the more commercial route that Martyn travelled in the eighties when he teamed up with Phil Collins. While purists may have scorned this change in direction, Thomson squares it with Martyn’s need to balance his creativity with survival. For all his wayward ways, he rarely lost sight of his calling. 
         Martyn’s skills as a guitarist and seeker out of unusual, pioneering music is fully covered and there are several instances where Thomson delves into Martyn’s fascinating technique, listing the FX he used in a brave attempt to explain how he did what he did. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Martyn seems to have been one of the few people who could communicate with Nick Drake, another extraordinarily gifted guitar player who experimented with unorthodox tunings, and there are hints within these pages that Drake occasionally came down from the ethereal peaks of passivity that books about him suggest were his natural habitat. A mutual friend, Paul Wheeler, makes an astute observation about Drake that I hadn't seen before but which seems well nigh perfect: “[He was] like one of those cats which turn up at many households, all of which are under the impression that they have a unique role in providing food, shelter and company for him.
         The book is not without humour. Some of the stories of Martyn’s escapades can’t help but raise a smile, especially the barney in an Indian restaurant when Martyn objected to racist comments from an adjoining table. Also, rarely for a biography, we are treated to a mouth-watering description of the subject’s eating habits. An epicurean of deeply held beliefs, Martyn “didn’t do fast music and didn’t do fast food”, writes Thomson. “He was not averse to eating roadkill.” Musicians who toured with him reported that he would rather go hungry than eat food that was not to his liking. “No pizza and chips for Johnny,” reports keyboard player Spencer Cozens. Prone to accidents and a confirmed carnivore, it seems laughably predictable that Martyn sustained serious injuries after crashing his car into a cow.
         Nick Drake’s death certainly affected Martyn badly, and may have accelerated his slow decline. He tried the patience of many and few stuck it out to the end. One who did was bassist Danny Thompson, another trouble maker, who became Martyn’s preferred and most distinguished accompanist. Another champion was Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who stuck by Martyn despite everything, as did his lifelong friend and mentor Hamish Imlach, the Scottish folk singer and humourist who died in 1996. All feature prominently.
         The book contains two eight-page photo sections. Poignantly, the final page of the second section features an uncaptioned photograph of a handsome young man in his twenties, his hair tousled, his beard crisply trimmed, his eyes sparkling. On the previous page we see a grossly overweight old man, unable to stand, his hair disappearing, his eyes partly closed. It was taken in 2008, the year before he passed. Small Hours explains in consummate detail how one became the other.  
         Prodigiously researched with around 100 interviews with relatives, friends, foes, fellow musicians, ex-managers and record company personnel, Small Hours is a terrific biography of a unique musician and troubled soul. All it lacks is an index.

10.8.20

DERAM RECORDS


 About three years ago I was commissioned to write sleeve notes for two upgraded CDs by a singer-songwriter originally signed to the Deram label who found greater success elsewhere. Part of the brief was to write something about the label itself. Since it appears that this project has been put on indefinite hold, I have decided to post the piece about the label on my blog. In the fullness of time I may post the far longer pieces about the albums and artist involved who, for now, must remain nameless.

The Deram label was launched by Decca Records in June of 1966 as a subsidiary outlet for more experimental pop music. Decca, which like its great rival EMI also manufactured other electrical goods, had already used the term ‘Deram’ on a cartridge device for holding the stylus that was detachable from the arm on the turntable of a stereo record player. It was also an abbreviation of the term ‘Deramic’ which Decca had coined for their brainchild Decca Panoramic Sound, designed to create a more natural sounding stereo spread.
         Decca’s Deram label initiative reflected a need on the part of major record companies not to appear staid in an era when pop was changing fast and more forward-thinking, fleet-footed independent labels like Island, Immediate, Track, Chrysalis and Charisma were on the rise. The response from EMI was to launch Harvest Records while Philips inaugurated the Vertigo label with a design on the actual label in the centre of vinyl LPs that, when spinning, rendered the viewer as vertiginously dizzy as the name implied.
         Based in Decca’s offices on the Albert Embankment, the label’s key man was Promotions Manager Tony Hall, with A&R under the control of Dick Rowe and his assistant Hugh Mendl, all of whom were technically Decca staff. Dick Rowe, of course, became famous as the man who turned down The Beatles but history has been unkind to an A&R executive who was otherwise eminently successful and, in any case, John, Paul, George & Pete Best were pretty lacklustre during their audition for Decca on New Year’s Day 1962.
         Deram made its debut with Denny Cordell’s production of 20-year-old Beverley (Kutner, soon to be [Mrs] Beverley Martyn) singing ‘Happy New Year’, a sprightly take on an early Randy Newman song on which she was accompanied by half of the future Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass – alongside ace session pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Andy White who took over from Ringo on the Beatles’ first recording of ‘Love Me Do’. As the first ever Deram release it was given the catalogue number DM 101. Cat Stevens’ ‘I Love My Dog’, the label’s first hit (#28, 1966) was DM 102.
         Deram soon went from strength to strength. As well as other early hits by Cat Stevens, most notably ‘Matthew And Son’ (#2, 1967) and ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ (#6, also 1967), it released the first two hits by The Move – ‘Night Of Fear’ (#2, 1967) and ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ (#5, also 1967) – and the evergreen ‘Nights In White Satin’ (#19, 1967) by The Moody Blues. 
         The label’s most significant early success, however, was Procol Harum’s debut single ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ (#1, 1967), the defining song of that year’s Summer of Love and, arguably, British psychedelia. With surrealistic, impenetrable lyrics and an undulating melody that sounded like an inversion of JS Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’ (Orchestra Suite No 3, BWV 1068), ‘… Pale’ held the top place on the singles charts for six weeks, went on to become one of the best-selling singles in history and is now recognised as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. The track, also produced by Denny Cordell, was the only Procol Harum record to be released on Deram, Cordell electing to switch labels – to EMI-controlled Regal Zonophone – thereafter. The Move went with them.
         Cat Stevens’ debut LP Matthew And Son reached number seven on the LP charts in 1967 but Deram wasn’t so successful with David Bowie whose own debut album, titled simply David Bowie, was released by the label on June 1, 1967. Produced by Mike Vernon, it was engineered by Gus Dudgeon, producer of Bowie’s first hit ‘Space Oddity’, who later commented: “Listening to it now I can’t believe that it was actually released because it must have been about the weirdest thing Deram had ever put out. In fact it must be about the weirdest thing any record company have ever put out.” Dudgeon was probably correct in this assessment. “[It]… consists of 14 short narrative vignettes delivered in a mannered cockney indebted to Anthony Newley,” wrote Bowie biographer David Buckley. “Newley’s 1960 ATV surrealist comedy programme, The Strange World of Gurney Slade, had been a prime influence on the young soon-to be musician, a world within a world in which inanimate objects speak, and poster girls come to life.”
         As well as these recordings by artists of note, Deram released a number of records by lesser known but noteworthy acts that enjoyed cult followings, many of which were one-off records designed to fulfil the label’s original premise of experimental pop. These included Timebox, Eyes Of Blue, Denny Laine (after he left the Moody Blues), drummer Keef Hartley, Alan Bown and East of Eden, led by violinist Dave Arbus, who had a hit with ‘Jig-A-Jig’ (#7, 1971) and played the outro solo on The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ on their 1971 LP Who’s Next.
         The label also enjoyed hits by Amen Corner, the Welsh R&B septet led by Andy Fairweather Low (‘Bend Me Shape Me’, #3, 1968, and ‘High In The Sky’, #6, 1968); The Flowerpot Men (‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’, #4, 1967), a group formed from session musicians that included future Deep Purple organist Jon Lord on keyboards; ‘I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ (#5, 1967) by Whistling Jack Smith; and the exquisite baroque single ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’ (#8, 1968) by Honeybus, which became the soundtrack to a TV commercial for Nimble bread.
         Like Procol Harum, Amen Corner, The Move and Cat Stevens, most Deram acts left the label after their initial success which suggests that those in charge of the its affairs viewed it more as an incubation chamber than a long term home for successful artists. Nevertheless, it continued into the seventies by releasing albums by Caravan, the progressive rock band from Canterbury, Cream lyricist Pete Brown, Daryl Way’s Wolf and, later, Way’s group Curved Air. Far and away the label’s most successful act of the seventies, however, was Ten Years After, the Nottingham-based blues rock quartet led by guitarist Alvin Lee who for a period early in the decade was a contender for the title of ‘fastest guitar on the block’. Four of the first five TYA albums made the top ten LP charts between 1969 and 1971.
         Deram appeared to have become moribund in the late seventies but was revived in the early eighties with singles by new wave acts like Splodgenessabounds, whose novelty hit ‘Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please’ reached number seven in 1980, The Modettes’ ‘Paint It Black, a ska arrangement of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 hit that reached number 42 in 1980, and Bananarama whose recording of ‘Really Saying Something’, a cover of a song by US girl-group The Velvelettes, became their second top ten hit (#5, 1982). Like so many others before them, however, Bananarama left the label immediately afterwards – moving to Decca subsidiary London Records – for the long string of hits they enjoyed from 1982 onwards.
         While never as acclaimed as other progressive labels – Vertigo, Harvest or Elektra – Deram nevertheless helped reposition Decca as a force to be reckoned with at a time when it was regarded by many in the industry as a rather unadventurous label, especially after the Rolling Stones left to sign with Atlantic, simultaneously carping about the label’s conservative outlook. The label is now owned by Universal Music which acquired Decca in 1998.



4.8.20

PETE TOWNSHEND - Who Came First


Here’s another old Who-related review of mine that I found in The Who Article Archive, this one from Melody Maker dated October 14, 1972, my review of Who Came First, Pete Townshend’s first officially released solo LP. At the time it wasn’t generally known that The Who’s modus operandi was for Pete to record demos of his songs, on which he sang and played all the instruments, that were then circulated to Roger, John and Keith to learn from prior to recording.
         Neither was I aware at the time that the LP was recorded as a response to MCA’s belief that the two albums Pete had recorded privately for release only to followers of Meher Baba had been bootlegged. Evidently MCA, The Who's US label, persuaded Pete that the best way to combat these was to record an ‘official’ solo LP, and this explains its copious references to Baba.
         I still have my original vinyl Track LP, no doubt the one I listened to as I made notes 48 years ago. It’s in remarkably good condition too, which suggests I didn’t play it all that much. Oddly, it is credited to ‘Peter Townshend’ on the spine but ‘Pete Townshend’ on the label. A new CD I have, with six additional tracks, is credited to ‘Pete’.

PETER TOWNSHEND. Who Came First (Track). Whatever else one feels about this album, it REALLY is a solo album in the strict sense of the word. When Rod Stewart and a heap of other make solo albums – good though they may be – they seem to collect a huge cluster of musicians to help them, and the more musicians helping the less solo the albums get to be.
         But here Pete Townshend has done virtually everything himself with one or two slight exceptions. Apart from brief appearances by Ronnie Lane, of Faces fame, and Caleb Quaye, of Hookfoot, and occasional assistance in the writing by other followers of Meher Baba, Pete has done everything himself – sung, written, played guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and synthesisers, and engineered, mixed and produced the whole thing. It really IS a solo album.
         While Townshend could doubtless have recruited some of the best rock musicians in the world to help him, he’s decided to do the lot himself – and as a result it sounds a bit thin here and there compared to the guts of The Who. Pete isn’t the best singer in the world, neither is he the best drummer and it’s on these two points that the album loses marks. But it picks up a load of marks on the songs, the simple but effective guitar picking throughout and on the general feeling of the record which is dedicated to Meher Baba, the religious guru who, apparently, changed Pete’s outlook on life so dramatically.
         Highlights are ‘Pure And Easy’, a song that sounds rather like the closing bars of ‘The Song Is Over’ on the Who’s Next LP, and the ever so laid back version of ‘Let’s See Action’ which is far superior to The Who’s single. Ronnie Lane takes the vocal on ‘Evolution’, a Lane composition, which is C&W influenced, and Caleb Quaye is on lead guitar on’ Forever Is No Time At All’, another goodie.
         It’s on side two that the standard seems to falter. It just doesn’t seem right, somehow, to hear Pete Townshend, the gymnast guitarist supreme, singing ‘There’s A Heartache Following Me’, titled here as ‘Heartache’, which was one of Baba’s favourite songs. ‘Sheraton Gibson’ is a pleasant little number, not unlike ‘Going Mobile’. ‘Content’ and ‘Parvardigar’ are really strictly for Baba followers. If it’s Pete’s intention to turn people on to Baba through the album, they are the all-important tracks. They are not unlike psalms with Pete airing them – as he says himself – like Vera Lynn.
         The words to ‘Parvardigar’ are beautiful but it clashes head on with the sleeve photo of Pete in which he resembles a character from A Clockwork Orange in his white boiler suit. I honestly can’t take the album too seriously. The more I play it, however, the more I like it – but is isn’t the Pete Townshend who dominates the stage like no other guitarist in rock.

31.7.20

THE WHO’S GEAR IN 1970


The Who Article Archive: 1964-1979 book that I wrote about in January contains at least once Melody Maker piece of mine that I’d completely forgotten about. It appeared in MM dated November 7, 1970, and was a brief interview with their soundman Bob Pridden about the group’s equipment, hardly scintillating stuff when you consider the electrifying press interviews that Pete often gave and the antics of Keith that we reported on. It may be that it appeared as editorial padding for one of those MM advertising supplements, this one designed to sell PA systems.
         It’s rather quaint now, but it gives an insight into what was probably the most powerful on the road amplification system of its era. The only other act that might have had as much gear in those days was Led Zeppelin. Here is it is:

“We’ve got enough gear to start three shops,” says jovial Bob Pridden, the man with the unenviable – but very responsible – job of looking after The Who’s thousands of pounds of wattage and making sure the group’s ear-shattering act runs – and sounds – smoothly from start to finish.
         Few groups carry around as much equipment as The Who. Their PA alone takes up one gigantic truck – and the guitar amps occupy another. In all the group put out a total of 2,000 watts – a figure unheard of five years ago when 300 watt PAs were the norm and stacks for guitarists a rarity.
         “The PA we use for a gig depends on the size of the booking,” says Bob. “If there are about 2,000 people at the show we use about 1,200 watts in the PA and another 300 in the monitoring system. So we can hear what is going on. It is all WEM [Watkins Electric Music] equipment but we have added ideas of our own. In fact WEM designed it for us although we have put on things to make it better for our sound.
         “The PA has ten large cabinets, that six 8 x 12, two 8 x 10 and two 4 x 15 cabinets and four 4 x 12 cabinets with tweeter columns. For the monitoring system we use another six 4 x1 2 cabinets linked up to three individual systems of 100 watts each. Roger has three cabinets placed for him, Pete has two and I have one.
         “We use three five channel mixers and a Watkins Copycat echo box which we have mucked about with. The drums are amplified through five mikes and mixed into a different channel and there are four vocal mikes, one on Pete’s guitar amp and one on Keith’s blocks. The mikes are Shure 565 Unispheres.
         “I would say the PA costs about £5,000 – and we have extra amps that we use in America where more power is needed. In really big places we use up to 2,000 watts.”
         Bob has three road managers under him to to help set up the gear which may take up to three hours. Firstly, it takes an hour and a half to put the speakers in the right positions and then the same again to balance everything properly. They use a Ford four-ton lorry to carry the PA round and a big Avis van for the rest of the equipment.
         “Pete uses four 4 x 12 cabinets and two 100-watt Hi-Watt amps, one wired to the top two cabinets  and the other wired to the bottom two. John uses the same cabinets and amps, although sometimes he might use two 4 x 15 cabinets instead. Also, we have 100-watt 4 x 12 cabinets from Pete’s amplifier set up near John so he can hear what Pete is doing during solos.
         “We carry a lot of spares with us, so that if an amp goes during a show we can easily substitute another.  I think we have enough gear to stock three shops and it’s all owned by The Who. Some groups hire equipment for tours but I don’t think it’s a good idea. When you own it you can do what you like with it.”

That last remark no doubt hides the fact that equipment rental companies might just have been unwilling to do business with The Who in those destructive days.

I found the picture of The Who’s set up for Leeds University on February 14, 1970, the show that was recorded for Live At Leeds, on this website: